CENTER STAGE: Roller-Coaster to the heart

CENTER STAGE
Roller-Coaster to the heart
By John Domini

05/06/2015

Even in rehearsal, the chemistry starts to percolate. No sooner do Jim Benda (as Vanya) and Ann Woldt (as Sonia) settle in over their coffee during the opening of “Vanya, Sonia, Masha, & Spike,” the comic molecules start to bounce dizzily — and this when the actors aren’t yet in costumes and makeup.

Sonia, for instance, brightly puts in a good word for her and Vanya’s father: “And he never molested me!”

Struggling for restraint, Vanya replies: “That’s nice.”

It’s a “Far Side” kind of love, clearly, between this brother and adopted sister. Christopher Durang’s 2013 play owed some of its Broadway success to Hollywood, since Sigourney Weaver was one of the cast members. Indeed, Weaver played Hollywood. She was Masha, the sibling who’s become a movie star. As for Spike, he’s the actress’ boy-toy. Still, Director Jennifer Nostrala believes the true “heart of the play” lies in its “vulnerabilities.”

Nostrala agrees that the story has “a surreal edge.” The script pokes fun at a theatrical sacred cow, namely the dramas of Chekhov, in which everyone has names like Vanya and Sonia. These family tragedies, in Durang’s handling, turn screwball. He even throws in a reverse striptease. But then, for the director, the whole show is “like a dance.” Every character, she points out, “spends time performing.”

No question about that — one running set of gags involves dressing everyone up like characters in Disney’s “Snow White.” The heroine of the cartoon, to be sure, is Masha, though she’s a long way from age-appropriate. But in the Des Moines interpretation, the Screen Queen, too, has her “vulnerabilities.”

Arlene McAtee handles the part, and she puts it this way: “Masha’s in a very tough business. She’s had to build herself up, larger than life. But inside that, she’s a human being, and naturally she’s got doubts.”

The humanity inside all the acting out had a lot to do with the show’s 2013 Tony Award. Comedies don’t usually pick up Best Play. Still, this playwright has offered more than laughs before. He’s best known for a biting satire on Catholics, “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All.” The difference this time, Nostrala argues, is his greater humanity.

“The play’s a roller-coaster ride, and yet the ending is more like a beginning, for all three siblings. Each comes to a realization and a fresh start,” she says.

At the rehearsal, what felt most like a carnival ride was the blocking. The set is by April Zinger, who created the ups and downs of “My Name is Asher Lev,” and she’s given everyone space to wheel this way and that, arms wide. At one point Andrea Markowski, as the housekeeper, stalked around waggling the vacuum cleaner’s hose. It could’ve been a Slinky — or a new way to stir up those comic molecules.

“Vanya, Sonia, Masha, & Spike.” StageWest, Kum & Go Theater. Fri. – Sat. May 8-9, 7:30 p.m.; Wed. – Sat. May 13-16, 7:30 p.m.; Sun. May 10 and 17, 2 p.m.
“Vanya, Sonia, Masha, & Spike.” StageWest, Kum & Go Theater. Fri. – Sat. May 8-9, 7:30 p.m.; Wed. – Sat. May 13-16, 7:30 p.m.; Sun. May 10 and 17, 2 p.m.

Overheard in the Lobby: At the Playhouse, “Charlotte’s Web” continues through May 17. CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.